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The power of kindness

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 2018

Carnegie UK Trust fellow Julia Unwin CBE discusses the direction that public services are going, and argues that well-intentioned reforms might put efficiency ahead of basic human kindness and interaction.

There are words that we use in our everyday language that we know matter to us. Kindness is one of them. We teach our children about how important it is to be kind; as adults, we know to condemn cruelty when we see it, even if we do not always feel safe acting on that feeling. But as professionals, the value that we place on kindness is less clear.

During my fellowship with the Carnegie UK Trust, I have held public and private meetings around the UK to explore the power of kindness in public policy. These discussion have confirmed to me that there are two lexicons in use in public policy. There is the language of metrics and value added, of growth and resource allocation, of regulation, and of impact. And there is the language of kindness and grief, of loneliness, love and friendship, of the ties that bind, and our sense of identity and belonging.

Native speakers of each of these languages converse perfectly well separately. They make decisions, and frequently get many things done. So many of the challenges of our time, though, require a more bilingual approach. They require us all to develop a fluency in both languages, and an ability to use the two lexicons without embarrassment or apology, and to move between them appropriately.

The existence of these two ways of talking matters for a number of different reasons. First, because some of the biggest challenges facing public policy currently surround behaviour change – and in order to understand behaviour change, policy needs to be fluent in both languages. Trying to influence behaviour change without a high level of emotional literacy is likely to fail.

And second, because we know how much trust matters, and we know that public trust is driven by emotions and personal experience as much as, if not more than, by data. And of course, because the evidence is clear that it is relationships that drive positive outcomes.

And yet, efforts to improve efficiency, transparency and bureaucracy in the last 30 years have led to a society where kindness can no longer be expected. The disconnect between those who are assumed to use services and those who provide them can, at best, result in confused communication, and at worst, result in very poor outcomes. A sense of identity, of affiliation and of belonging drives trust and enables participation, and it is the recognition of this that is central to decision-making.

In talking about kindness, I’ve noticed one of two reactions. There’s the ‘kind’ reaction; of course, we want to be kind. It would be so much better if communities talked to each other and neighbours were nice to each other. Or there’s the reaction that nods but says, “yeah, but it’s not really policy is it, it’s what good public servants do, it’s not very radical.” And in all the reactions there is a strong sense that this about ‘them,’ it’s not about ‘us.’

When we talk about kindness, we very quickly address the frontline of public services. I know that the vast majority of care assistants and hospital workers are absolutely motivated by kindness. Creating opportunities for frontline staff to be kind, which means different things to different people and is difficult to regulate, has the potential to improve the value of a service. Patients are more likely to trust a kind doctor, visit them when they need to and avoid long-term health problems; housing association tenants are more likely to be honest with a rent collector face-to-face than a call-centre operator. Using our emotional intelligence, rather than relying on artificial intelligence (AI), could save lives and costs in the long term.

But it is in policy design, implementation and evaluation that we really need to think about kindness. It’s in the way we set targets and provide incentives, and in the way we regulate and reward, that this has the capacity to be a far more radical and disruptive concept. Here we are talking about the way that kindness is, directly and indirectly, designed out of our systems.

Directly, it is designed out to avoid discretion and deliver apparent fairness. As a society, we do not want public services allocated in a way that allows some groups to benefit more than others. We create systems designed to be followed with clear rules and boundaries. No one, not least me, would want to return to systems that allowed for discretion to be applied on the basis of age, sexuality or race. But we should acknowledge that in our current systems, discretion is still applied. We know people are more likely to receive a good service from someone “like them,” and so middle-class professionals receive a better, kinder service than those from other strata of society.

We know that when people refer to acts of kindness from frontline public servants, they are often talking about people who have bent the rules somewhat to achieve a better outcome. How can our commitment to fairness and consistency enable us to be truly kind and allow for the sort of discretion that a relational approach requires?

A generation of focus on efficiencies has crowded out the space where relationships used to flourish. Our public space has dwindled and often feels designed to avoid human contact rather than encourage it. Housing estates are designed to enhance privacy and therefore are specifically set out to make sure that you won’t ever catch your neighbour’s eye when you come out of your door. Policies to design out crime can result in designing out people – removing street furniture and places simply to hang about. Health and care services, operating under pressure, reduce time available to the bare bones – by design, there is no space for a chat or to show care for someone’s wider interests. In isolation, policies like these are designed to improve people’s lives, but collectively they reduce the space for kindness to flourish.

There is urgency in this. Now is the time to take stock of the collective impact of these policies on our relationships as citizens and service users, and on our humanity as professionals. We are moving into a world which will be transformed by AI and technological advance. Automation, algorithms and AI are beginning to transfer from markets to public policy.

This world will take us to a place where there are even greater potential efficiencies and benefits for people. But, if designed poorly, people will receive some very cold, very distant, and not very trusted services from governments. Designing in the importance of relationships and kindness may be our best way to ensure we don’t lose touch with what makes us human.


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